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Nov 21, 2016 |
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Avant-Gospel Opera HEAVEN DOWN HERE: Exploring Contemporary Issues on Race and Religion

This coming January at the NOA Convention in Santa Barbara, THE SACRED IN OPERA INITIATIVE of NOA will discuss and present excerpts from composer Andrew Barnes Jamieson’s avant-gospel chamber opera, Heaven Down Here, which explores contemporary racial and religious conflict through the lens of the Jonestown Massacre. In 1977 Over 1000 members, led by Pastor Jim Jones, left their San Francisco headquarters The People’s Temple, for Jonestown, Guyana where most would later die in a massacre orchestrated by their leader—the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act prior to the events of September 11, 2001. Jamieson and his creative team will discuss the philosophy behind his recent opera. The composer will also explain the full experience of the work’s production process which seeks to explore the use of African American Pentecostal Hymnody and Spirituals infused with experimental harmonies and improvisation, to mirror the radical and provocative theology that the congregants of People’s Temple hoped to embody.

Sacred in Opera: How did your latest chamber opera, Heaven Down Here, come about?

Andrew Jamieson: Heaven Down Here is an avant-gospel chamber opera that had been formulating inside me for about six years. When I was twenty-one years old, I encountered the scenario of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, in which almost a thousand people died from drinking cyanide–laced Kool-Aid under the leadership of Jim Jones. I then found out more about this whole movement and the community that it represented. It was a movement that I myself might have identified with had I been around during the sixties and seventies, and I mean that in so many ways: with the way the community identified with progressive politics, with socialism, with antiracism… and also because it was mostly a black community. Jim Jones was anglo-american, but the racial and ethnic profile of the community was highly minority based.  It also had a spiritual component that I identified with: Christian traditions informed by hues of the black church.

When first coming in contact with this piece of American history, I was a student at Northwestern University, holding freelancing jobs as a pianist for two black gospel churches in Evanston, Illinois. It is there that I became familiar with the theology and worship practices of black spirituality.  Consequently, I was able to connect to the story of People’s Temple in ways that compelled me to say, “This needs to be my next opera project.”  I let it ruminate in my mind for years. I took notes and gathered all the sources I could, and I even took a class at Northwestern called “Religion and Social Change in The Black Church.”  I then raised close to eight thousand dollars through Indiegogo and began designing a score that aimed to portray a “certain” perspective on the worship of The People’s Temple. 

Much of the music was based on pre-existing melodies that I then attempted to rework at times through polytonal means that served to depict cacophony. I then at times transformed these existing melodies into dialogue that represents the varying degrees of feelings and tensions (hope, inspiration, fear, abuse, destruction) that members of People’s Temple may have experienced—all those things interacting with one another. I tried to use different musical elements from the original songs, mixing them with freely improvised dissonant playing that at times break out into dance sequences.

SIO: You’ve mentioned your connection to music of the African Diaspora. What dramatic themes surrounding the massacre compelled you to write and to think about this subject?

AJ: You know, it’s hard to read about what happened in the days leading up to the events at Jonestown, and not be shaken by the drama of it all: how Jim Jones prepared parishioners for this moment… when congressman Leo Ryan came and was shot… and then everyone is killed.  I was drawn to the idea that this drama seemed deserving of musical and theatrical exploration. But also seeing so much of myself in the themes and thinking that it could’ve been me, it could’ve been me in Jonestown, you know? And even seeing certain parts of myself in Jim Jones as a white man who works with black spiritual communities now: navigating the power dynamic there, being aware that in a racist society, I ended up having this higher position or extra power without even trying to attain it.  Jim Jones also attained a leadership position among minorities, and abused it in the most horrific of ways.

SIO: You needed to make it conscious?

AJ: Yes, I wanted to explore it, I wanted to see what I would discover about it, and I learned a great deal.

SIO: Do you think that the approaches and technics of experimental music that you used were useful tools for expressing that drama?

AJ: I found them most useful in several ways. The People’s Temple was a very experimental community in their identity. They were trying all these new things that really hadn’t been tried before, and unfortunately some of them were pretty terrible things like sessions of so called catharsis where Jim Jones would try to get people to talk about things in a new way, with a lot of violence and abuse being perpetrated. There was experimentation in parts of their ideology: men taking the last names of their wives, radical feminism, radical anti-racism which tried to turn the tables-- to give minorities power over others unlike them.

As experimental musicians, we also find ourselves challenging the establishment and the expectations that are imposed upon us by our cultures; at times we challenge them head on, we defy them. We’ve thrown out the formal conventions of time and key signatures, and the idea of pitch and harmony altogether. We’ve come up with radical solutions which turns everything upside down.

Part of what I wanted to do was to use my creative process with this piece as a meditation and as a warning on the dangers of being an experimentalist.  Are there dangers in expelling all the formal conventions of a society that is imperfect and responsible for so much injustice? If society and the conventions in our culture are designed to keep us accountable, when we ignore and resist any accountability to society, what are the risks? I think being an experimentalist has great potential but also great risk, and it’s important to explore all. I think innovating and trying new ways of listening and performing is important, but we also have to be aware that there could be unintended consequences to what we’re doing, and being unaccountable isn’t the answer.

SIO: What do you think are the dangers that lurk within experimental music?

AJ: First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge all the ways that experimental music is really innocuous. In the context of a global concert season, the reality is that experimental music is rarely heard in major concert halls.  There simply is not enough funding for it. Very few composers make their living entirely off writing solely experimental music.

You know, few people think they even like it at all. It’s often considered to be very inaccessible material specifically designed to deter the masses, and to engage only the esoteric and intellectually rich. It’s often considered to be music that makes you the listener slice through many layers of sounds, gestures and obscure traditions. The listener has to know all of those things in order to start, to begin to appreciate what’s going on, so it’s important to recognize that this process makes experimental music innocuous in a certain way.

However, I’ve been very interested in focusing on the work of composers of color in this country, particularly black composers. I find that many of them also aspire to this same kind of experimental aesthetic that I as a white composer identify with. Roscoe Mitchell and people from his circles in the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) like Leo Smith, George Lewis and Antony Braxton come to mind. So we know that there’s this group of black composers who are aspiring for that. A small number have found a certain kind of success but there’s always, always this push back by the white establishment to keep it as so.

With so many limited resources in experimental music, I think it’s easy for us in the dominant culture to kind of cling to our position and to maintain our privilege to experiment. I think that we, usually subconsciously and unintentionally, end up shutting out people who aren’t part of our dominant culture. I don’t think we’re going to have a thousand people die at the hands of an experimental composer, but I do think that for what power there is within the community, it matters, and needs to be used responsibly by those who have it.

SIO: There are structures of power even in sub-communities such as these.

AJ: That’s what I believe, yes. That’s an important part of my philosophy and my politics, and my aesthetics.  I think you have to be conscious, I think you have to know what the trends are, and not let them have too much influence and too much power over you. You have to always be looking out for alternatives to what is dominant. And that I think is one of the strengths of the experimental musician, that we always are looking beyond to transcend the dominant culture in general, we’re always looking for alternative paths and I think that’s the real strength and that’s why I do what I do.

SIO: What was the response of the community, in the churches when the opera was performed?

AJ: Well, I don’t think it was a very easy theatrical work for people to experience, although, many people were grateful to experience it. A few people felt the music was engaging but given the story, they were hesitant to tell me they enjoyed it…They feel a little bit uneasy and guilty about that.  I’m trying to help them find a certain beauty in telling these stories that need to be told, and helping them discover truths that need to be acknowledged. To me that’s beautiful, to use acknowledgement that is difficult and painful as healing.

Many attendees have had difficulty sitting through the opera, and several original cast members began to back away from participating because they found the subject matter so emotionally difficult to explore. One singer in particular told me, “this is too hard for me, I take this really seriously and I can’t, I just can’t do it.” So, there was a lot of that happening, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. I don’t think it means that the music was not very good or that I was doing the wrong thing. I’m just aware that humans processing grief sometimes feel the need to distance themselves from whatever is triggering the pain.

SIO: How do you view the relationship between religion and experimental music?

AJ: There’s a time as a young adult, I think where it’s important to really evaluate, where one comes from and ask big questions and I was doing that: questioning what I believed in. I read a great deal on Messiaen and on how he expressed his faith through music.  And then there’s John Cage! I had started taking on Buddhist practices before I engaged a great deal with the work of John Cage, and back then, I was little unsure if the meditation that I was doing and the philosophy that I was confounding was really compatible with my work as an artist. I then came across what John Cage had written on his experiences with silence and the human experience of just letting things be-- how music can be utilized to cultivate a mindset, the same kind of mindset that Buddhist teachers aspired to.  Then John Cage, his spirituality, became a very explicit influence on my music. Studying the works of Cage and Messiaen really lead me to this path that I’m still on.  My interest isn’t always focused on expressing my own ideas, which is something I think both Messiaen and Cage were doing and I think that their journeys are wonderful, because they were also trying to empower everyone’s perspective.

But I am trying to build bridges between different communities. I come from a very progressive background which I’m still very committed to, and a lot of the churches that I collaborate with are on the cutting edge of integrating the LGBT movement, feminist movements and of course civil rights and others, into their spirituality. And you know, we’re only now starting to ordain people who are gay, lesbian, transgender and many, many churches still refuse to do that.

So we have these activist communities and we have these religious communities that are often at odds with one another.  I’m interested in how someone like myself who loves both communities can be that bridge. So I’ve started taking that process and practice of building bridges and using artistic expression to do that, to build bridges between communities of faith and communities of artists.

There’s a lot of openness and we’re reconstructing, we’re rebuilding and recreating in the most fundamental way and that’s what we have to do if we want to move forward.

In line with this idea of creating something new, I am also interested in not limiting performances to formal concert settings. I’ve been really drawn to audience participatory music which creates this common space and common ground reminiscent to certain worship settings.

SIO: I think that is very interesting, that a certain type of concert goer may find extemporaneous gestures and sounds coming from the audience new and attractive, and yet in certain communities, audience participation has been the norm for thousands of years.

AJ: Yes, absolutely! I have this idea that when we do crazy and “weird” things, we are actually connecting with something ethereal and something you know, really ancient. I always find myself thinking, “is this a new idea that I have or is this an old idea?”

SIO: Religion can be seen as a practice of growth, of expanded consciousness, of spiritual enrichment.  Some may see experimental music as also a vehicle that moves on a similar path.

AJ: And I think that in both of them you end up revisiting traditions… some traditions are so old that they seem new.  They tell me that our word ‘radical’ comes from the word ‘root’, so even in so called movements ‘radical’, you know, radical liberation, radical feminism and womanism and radical everything that we have. If you semantically or linguistically go and look up what they’re talking about, you’ll see that they’re talking about going back to the root of an issue. They’re not talking about throwing everything out and trying to reinvent the wheel. They’re talking about going back to what underlies the principles that we all depend on, and going back to those…getting rid of societal baggage.

SIO: What sources that have been most influential for your work on Heaven Down Here?

AJ: Books like Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, Cheryl Sanders’ Saints in Exile, and James and Rosamond Johnson’s texts on Spirituals were highly relevant to the work… and John Cage.  Rumi has been an influence and inspiration as well.  The quilting/patchwork aesthetic, both from Africa and the diaspora is important to me. Regarding theology, my favorites are theologies of “liberation,” or anything that articulates the faith of the oppressed or people on the margins.  Christian and African American or European American theologies are the most familiar to me, but that does not mean I find them any more “correct” than less familiar theologies.  Buddhist thought is another influence.  For more on the composer, visit:

Diego Villaseñor is founder of Experinautas: a blog on experimental music in all of its variations. A place for experimental musicians and curators in experimental scenes to learn and share.  Through interviews, reflections, recordings and other means, it is dedicated to documenting and sharing the collective knowledge and art of experimental artists and scenes.